A Book Review: The Woman in White

July 28, 2013

Written between 1859 and 1860, The Woman in White was published in weekly instalments. This Victorian novel succeeds in being accessible and enjoyable, despite its length. Slow in some places, a criticism appropriate to much 19th century writing stretching even to the beloved Brontes', the epistolary form, combined with a gripping mystery story, coalesce in generating a page turner.
Dickens was named a friend, boss and mentor to Collins and they are said to have inspired one another. Whilst both combine elements such as romance, mystery, mercenary villains, and gothic features, the reader's experience of the two authors proves distinctly different. Wilkie Collins employs a style that was coined the first detective novel and is considered foundational for "sensation fiction". Despite these achievements, Dickens remains a 21st Century household name over Wilkie Collins who was at the time one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. However after Collins' death, his reputation declined whereas Dickens' grew increasingly popular. Whilst a fan of Dickens, 'The Woman in White' has certainly confirmed to me that he wasn't the only talented story writer of the time, so if you're fond of Dickens, and after something marginally less dense and literary, then maybe you will be pleased to pick up one of Collins' novels.

Following an unusual epistolary form, Collins juggles the narratorial voice between a variety of different characters all of whom gradually reveal the intricacies of the story. This form is a perfect plot device for unravelling all of the elements of the story, leaving one with blanks, questions, and intrigues on the way, facilitating suspense, and qualifying the novel as one of the first in gothic mystery fiction.

It is Walter Haltright's voice that opens the novel, whilst introducing his Italian friend Pesca, when we are made aware of the news of his appointment as drawing master to Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe of Limmeridge House. In conjunction with this revelation, one late summer's evening Hartright has a moonlit and eerie sighting of the distressed and strangely impassioned Woman in White.
'In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'
Little does he know that this troubling incident, and the woman he mysteriously comes across, will prove to determine the course of his future, intercepting and intertwining with his path again and again, and haunting the following chapters.
Shortly afterwards, Hartright takes his position and forms an affection for one of the ladies, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Woman in White. This intimacy must be ruthlessly abandoned since she is priorly engaged. After a mysterious letter warning against the impending marriage, the union nevertheless takes place. Following the honeymoon, the couple settle in the family estate of Blackwater Park along with the lady's sister, and Count Fosco, the husband's close friend. 
In this Hampshire country house, the wife and sister undergo misery, confusion, and utter helplessness, at the hands of the cunning household occupants. How far will these villains go to cover the traces of their immoral past? Haltright comes to the fore as detective, but what is the nature of the mystery he will he unravel? What dangers will he overcome to uncover the truth and achieve a sense of justice? How will the uncanny resemblance between the Woman in White and Laura Fairlie conclude?

My thoughts:
I enjoyed this novel immensely. Collins employs the typical, and unfailingly interesting, Victorian themes of romance, false identity, inheritance, and mercenary villains while exploring the lengths that humans will go to for selfish motives. He examines vulnerability and mental instability whilst identifying the loyalty and determination of lovers and family in overcoming the depths of human misery.
Collins skilfully crafts his diverse characters from inspiring Marian Halcombe; innocent Laura Fairlie; to loyal, compelling yet disturbing Anne Catherick; insufferable and unbearable Mr Frederick Fairlie; intimidating Percival Glyde, to perhaps his greatest feat, the mysteriously inscrutable, and deceiving Count Fosco. These developed and interesting characters are all heavily invested in telling the story and provide further suspense and confusion caused by the suspected unreliability of said narrators.
The novel combines Gothic horror with psychological realism, avoiding all the cliches of cobweb ridden castles, haunting ghosts, and secret labyrinth passages. Instead Collins successfully creates an affecting gothic scene made more frightening when transposed into everyday life and penetrating one's own sense of domestic safety. 

I must address Henry James' criticism concerning the "ponderosity" of the novel, by justifying to you the length based on all of its other merits, and by commenting that, Mr James, you can wait to see what I have to say about your novels.

1 comment:

  1. I read it when I was about 20-22. Thanks for your great review! x